Oren R. Lyons is a traditional Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan who was raised in the ancient culture and practices of the Iroquois on the Seneca and Onondaga reservations in Northern New York State. An accomplished Native American leader, writer, educator, historian, activist, speaker, and organizer, Lyons has spent the much of his life focused on native Indigenous people’s issues in North America. Lyons is deeply involved with national and international issues that affect native peoples and has represented them in many forums throughout the world, including several at the United Nations focusing on the rights and status of indigenous peoples, the environment, and sustainable development. Lyons is a member of the Seneca Nation and of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy in New York state.
DK: How is global warming impacting native indigenous people?
OL: It impacts poor people and indigenous peoples are almost always poor, they’re the first ones to suffer. In Africa and Haiti, people are already suffering from global warming and the Arctic is really going down fast. I get reports from Alaska, Sweden, Norway, Canada, Mongolia, the polar caps, it is all the same, it is going down, going down fast. So fast that there’s no transition, no transition for the ice culture to adapt and the animals are caught in it the same way as the humans are. The Inuit of Greenland say that they only give the White Bear 20 more years and the White Bear is now mating with the Brown Bear, so they know. Things are changing quickly. I would expect that in the next two years we are going to be involved in some very serious fires, bigger ones than what was seen this year, and there are going to be bigger storms, maybe one or two Katrina scale storms and that’s going to wake the people up. And then from that point, we may have a chance, but the people have to be slammed hard on the side of the head to where they have to fear. It seems to be the only thing that they’re going to respond to now. They’re certainly not going to respond to common sense. It’s going to take their own personal survival fear kicking in, and if that’s what it takes. We had a string of 139 tornadoes up the center of the United States this past week. Nobody’s ever seen that before, that’s unprecedented. Doesn’t that tell you something? If that doesn’t tell you that we need to be changing from how you’re living your life I would say something’s wrong.
DK: Is there much parallel between climate change and native prophecy?
OL: We know what’s coming, we were told long ago what’s coming. Long ago with the Six Nations, in 1799 a man by the name of Banyandieo was Chief from the Seneca Nation. He was a drunkard and his daughter was trying to keep him alive. She had him up in his cabin everyday he saw a new day he would give thanks, he was renewing all these things that he knew he hadn’t been for doing a long time, and one day he heard a voice calling to the door, “come to the door”, so he went to the door and there were three men standing there and they were very handsome men, middle-aged, and they said, you’re a sick man, they said we are going to cure your sickness one of the men said I want to eat these berries to heal your sickness and he ate the berries and they said, we think you are the one that we want to carry this message, and he said why me? And they said well, we’ve been listening to your voice in the morning and you’re recognizing what you need to and we think you’re the man and then they heard his daughter, who was scavenging for plants on the hill and she saw her father by the door and she saw him fall and she hollered and they said, he’ll be all right, a skimmer with us and so he was taken on a four-day spiritual journey, and during that time he was instructed on these elements that would destroy the nation. They said it is clear it to us that we did not instruct you enough about what your brother brought across the water, and so we are going to tell you one last message, we want you to hear this message back to your people. Stay from the strong drink. Second one is you don’t need the Bible, you know your own way. Get back to your ceremonies. Third one was each breath, each breath. Tell your people this country is still your nation. That was 1799.
It was some years back I was driving to Santa Fe, I came up over the hill and down in the valley was an Indian casino and there was an ace king and Queen and Jack of hearts 16 feet tall. That is why the Six Nations don’t have any casinos. There are now 250 casinos around the country there are 561 Indian nations in the United States of that 250, 10% make money, the rest are just barely breaking even or losing money. It’s all about the location and it’s a competition and it’s big business. In order to have that casino you have to sign a compact with the federal government that says that they can come in and check your books and follow their rules. So you give up your sovereignty. Further than that you have to make the same agreement with the State do you live in which has always been our enemy the state has always been after our sovereignty.
DK: You think the casinos have been more costly to the native community than a benefit?
OL: In the end, they’re going to tax them all. They just been here a short time. The government is in it for long-term fight. The United States is fierce and they don’t even treat their own people right. You yourself have to fight taxes, fight intrusion, where are you going to go? The enemy is the government, so you have a very hostile government that is not looking out for you. So we knew about it long ago, different versions. Nevertheless, you’re susceptible when you’re poor, when you’re hungry, when you’ve never had anything, when someone offers you something.
Global warming will be here before you see the end of that one, I’d rather see the end of that one then global warming, because global warming is going to be very serious. The first evidence of global warming is going to be disease because of the high population. Disease is coming because of its pandemic nature, they have been fighting it, just barely holding it back these past 10 years, but you can hold it back. Once it hits it’s going to shut down the system. You know when we had SARS 350 Chinese died, probably more but they owned up to 350 and that shut down Hong Kong, shut down New York, shut down Toronto, nobody moved, everyone got scared. That’s just the beginning. When it comes, it going to be very Democratic is nothing you can do about it. It comes from people coughing so every time I hear a cough I think about that, imagine sitting next to the person coughing on an airplane. It’s scary and they don’t want to think about it, but you have to if you have children. After seven generations are they going to be there? It’s up to us seven generations ago there was a chief looking out for me, otherwise I wouldn’t be here talking to you. So they had responsibility back then and we have the same responsibility. There weren’t 6.7 billion people in the world back then either.
We are way out of balance with what we do, and what we eat; how we exploit our comfort level. What’s the biggest problem in the United States right now? Physically, it’s fat people, just look around. If you travel overseas and come back and look around, you see them, including the people on the reservations. We are sick.
DK: Last year the UN adopted a Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What was the basis for the founding of that campaign?
OL: The basis of it was the fact that at that time, we indigenous peoples didn’t seem to have a voice or human. We weren’t even called indigenous people, we were called other things like natives. In 1975, we met on Victoria Island off of B.C., and we decided at that time that we would call ourselves indigenous. We talked about aboriginal, we talked about native and we decided that when we were going to go public, we would call ourselves indigenous peoples. It became quite a problem later on internationally, let we were new to this whole idea and we were gathering to get ready to move into the international community. After looking at the human rights declaration of the United Nations that was established in 1945 and ratified in 1948, we said well, it says there all peoples, and it wasn’t us, we couldn’t understand why and how could you exclude us? Because there wasn’t any law, you couldn’t see any rule, so we said well this is an issue and we need to go and address it, we’re going to go to Geneva. In 1971, there was a Guatemalan Indian leader and he had a vision that by the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America, indigenous people would have a voice at the UN. And he began meeting with them, we met in 1972, ‘73, and ‘75, and in 1977 we went to Geneva. When we started out, we had no standing whatsoever, we presented ourselves indigenous people, we were invited by the NGO’s, non governmental organizations international and that was a momentous occasion its historic now, there were 146 delegates and each one had a story, the varieties of where we came from, North, Central, South America, the difficulties we had getting the funds to get there, we had a heck of lot of support, vital crucial support. And when we got there, the six nations we were in these meetings all this time and just prior to spring of 1977 when plans were being made, we were going to go out to South Dakota to meet with our Lakota allies when one of our chiefs died, our titleholder. We had to turn around and go home. We were on our way, all the way to Wisconsin when we got the news that he had died. And we didn’t go back. We were engrossed with what was going on in our country, which was a lot in 1975. Russell Means came to one of our six nation meetings in July 1977, he asked to speak. I said okay. He said if the six nation doesn’t go with this initial event, there’s no use of any of us going. So when he put it in those terms, we decided well let’s get back to business on this. We said okay we had to get a passport without where we going to get a passport now we decided or not getting get a US passport but we needed some passport so we made one we made our own passports and way issued them to the travelers, 28 of us and we said it was going to be a test to see how they would accept us, because if they were going to accept our passports, they would accept us being there. Back in ‘75 you could do that, travel was like that. We were prepared for a fight, we thought, whoever wants to take us on, we are here. We spent four hours at the border. And we had only one day to prepare to make our statement we came from North Central and South America never saw each other before we had to come up with our message we had to this across languages and we had to do this in one afternoon.
DK: Do you think it’s possible to expect any ethical or moral behavior on the part of the World Bank or International Monetary Fund?
OL: Not the World Bank, that’s not their business. Their business is not morality, their business is money, there is no morality in what they do whatsoever. The World Bank is the U.S.A., it is not the World Bank. It operates out of here, the people on the board are from here, it’s a cover, so how can it have any morality to it? Morality is a problem for most banks.
I was in a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Everyone wanted me to speak, it seemed I was the most popular guy there. I was asked by Dr. Schwab who had asked me to make a presentation to all the world corporate powers that were there, and I said I would, under one condition. I said we take the people I’m going to talk to up to the top of the Alps and keep them there for 24 hours, when they come down, I’ll talk to them. He said is that that is a good idea, but they’re not going to do that. So he still talked me into going over there and I said I think I might have something that they’d be interested in hearing. So finally I wound up talking to their inner sanctum, their high-level committee asked me to speak to them. It was a very select group of powerful folks from Russia, the United States, Argentina, and other nations and corporations. I was a curiosity to them. I said before, you asked me a question let me ask you a question. I said, I know that all of you corporate leaders know that the earth’s resources are finite and yet you’re running your governments and your corporations like its infinite, like there is no limit there. I said you know better than that. My question of you is why are you doing that when you know. Finally one very distinguished gentleman stood up to answer and said, well Chief, as a CEO, I have to respond to what my stockholders want and my stockholders want a profit. If I don’t show a profit, I’ll be fired. I said, the stockholders? You don’t have anything to say about that? He said, well we are here to make money and that’s what I’m supposed to do, and they watch what I do. So it is the stockholder’s fault I asked and he said, well you could say they are directing the traffic. And so I asked, who are they? And he said, probably you. I said, I work as a professor at the University of New York, probably in my retirement there are stock investments, so he was right. So I asked the question and it was me! I said, well let me respond a little bit to that. Let us take one of your businesses, you’re always in competition, let’s take the shoe business, Adidas, Nike, all you guys have a horse, everybody wants to be number one. They said, yes. So you are in a race to be number one. They said, you could say that. I said okay, so around the far turn, you are coming down to the finish line. It is not an electronic final line, it is a stone wall and you’re looking at that, and I said, right now look at that wall, you’re not pulling your horse, you are whipping him to get to that wall. Where is the common sense in that? They didn’t really respond to that, they kind of agreed. So after this exchange, I asked this man, do you have any grandchildren? He said yes, I have an eight-year-old grandson. I said, why I have a grandson eight years old too. So we were to grandpas talking about our kids. I asked him, when do you cease being a CEO and become a grandfather? And there was silence. He couldn’t answer that. It’s got very uncomfortable in there. He would not answer the question so finally somebody says, well Chief, we hear about Indian prophecies. Can you tell us a prophecy? I said okay, how about a guaranteed prophecy? Ever hear of a prophecy guaranteed? They said no I said I can tell you one, being an Indian. They said okay, what is that? I said, you are going to meet next year and nothing will have changed. Guaranteed. That was the end of the meeting. What did I do? I bought a moral question into an economic forum and I was way out of line. They couldn’t or wouldn’t answer me because they would verbalized what they all know. And the World Bank remains the largest public funder of fossil fuel projects in the world.
DK: And where the fossil fuels are, native people happen to live.
OL: Well they’re up there in the tar sands where native people live in the Arctic, they’re down the Amazon, and where the Dineh, the Navajo Nation live. It is such a powerful economic leverage. In Canada, they fought them and fought them and fought them. Finally, they had a new election up there and they elected a new Indian government and they got bought off. They were tired of fighting, and now the natives are going to get money and the land will be raped.
DK: The United States founders got so many ideas about democratic political systems from Native American, but what is in practice now is more in word than in deed, so what went wrong?
OL: It started to go wrong right off the bat. In 1744 there was a meeting in Lancaster Pennsylvania. And the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia were there. They were arguing over land and the Six Nations were presiding at this meeting. Finally, it got around to one of the Onondaga Chiefs, and he said, you guys are never going to amount to anything if you keep arguing amongst each other. He said why don’t you make a union like ours. Look how old we are. Look how respected we are. Look how strong we are. Work together, make a union like ours, and the guy who was taking notes was head Walter Golden, he was a speaker and note taker and historian. He was taking all those notes and they went down to Philadelphia to be put in a book, and guess who was the printer? Ben Franklin. Franklin read that and said that’s a good idea. 10 years later he called it the Albany Plan of Union. Twelve of the 13 colonies, let’s bring them all together and work together. And he asked the six nations to preside and a great leader called Hendrick Mohawk presided, to talk about democracy and governance. Very practical, very real. They wouldn’t accept it. There was a spy for the King of England at the meeting, and he sent a letter to the King of England saying King you better beware, they’re having a meeting here about government by people, in 1754. So out of this came the Continental Congress. The Continental Congress called themselves the 13 fires and they called their assembly the grand council, and the first flag they made had a pine tree on it. These are all our symbols. Up to 1775, they met with us at upstate New York, a place called German Flats, and they wanted us to join in their union in their fight with their father and our Chief said at that time, well it is a fight between father and son. We don’t think it’s a good idea to be involved. And they said good that was our second request, if you’re not going to fight with us, don’t fight against us. And the chief said well whoever is going to win; it will still be our problem, because they are going to want our land. So they made a treaty. They went back in the Continental Congress made a wampum belt with this agreement. In 1776 they had a meeting on Fort Pit, that is now Pittsburgh, they presented this relationship and they said we like this so much, we will carry this through the Great Lakes, stay neutral, stay out of it. And they said to us then, you’ll never have to fight we will fight for you; you won’t have to raise your arms again. So that was the first treaty with the new United States with the Six Nations. When George Washington saw that, he went ballistic. We need the Six Nations he said, they have got to fight with us or we are going to lose. So he dismantled that without telling us. We did not know that. They expunged all that from the history. They took it all out and you don’t hear or read about it. A guy by the name of Morgan was doing the mediation, and his papers were discovered in a woman’s house here in California, in Santa Barbara. So Dennis Banks gets a look at these papers, calls me and says, hey, you better come look at this, it looks real to me! And the pages of his field manual, which are in the University of Pennsylvania museum, the pages from 1775-1783 are torn out, those pages were in there. Did we have something to do with the development of this nation? I would say yes, we were there, even after the revolution. If you go out to the headquarters of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Independence Hall, that green that is out in front belongs to Six Nations. Our camp was right there.
You turn around to America today and everyone’s looking to Washington, asking, what are we going to do? Well that’s stupid, Washington? Give me a break. That’s the source of the problem. It’s going to be up to the people. You are going to have to build your communities and they are going to have to be self-sustaining, get to the high ground and get water, that’s my instruction to you, high ground and water, don’t be on the low ground.
DK: The Iroquois nation seemed to have had a spiritual center and moral authority. That doesn’t seem to be the case in terms of what was created for this nation.
OL: No, that’s what we told them, you guys are starting out wrong, they said well, we have too many religions, we can’t find one. Where are your women? No women involved here? Once they won that first fight, they reverted back to some European thinking.
DK: Is agriculture still a major focus of your community?
OL: Yes, corns, beans, and squash, the three sisters and the other leaders in the planting season. We have ceremonies around the lunar year, the first ceremony of the new year is maple and that starts when the sap runs and lasts until it stops. The next ceremony is for the planting, the next is strawberry, the next one is the bean, the next one is a corn, and the next one is the harvest. And then than midwinter, for 21 days, we say we wrap the year in a bundle. 21 days of ceremony. All Thanksgiving, all songs, all dances. You are really tired by the end of that time, everyone is tired but that’s what we do.
DK: Being sovereign, how are your nation’s relations with the US government?
OL: We fight them tooth and nail all the time. They know who we are. We are the last traditional government in North America, maybe in the world. Maybe if you go way into the middle of the Amazon where the natives haven’t met anyone yet, you’ll find somebody there who runs themselves. As far as we know, we are the last of the last Chiefs. All the other Indian nations in the country are elected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We don’t have any BIA on our nation, we don’t allow them on our land, and we don’t take federal money. The federal government knows us. I get followed from time to time, I see them, but they are in disarray.
DK: The BIA is even out on the Navajo and Hopi land, they still have their tribal elders…
OL: But they’re not in charge, we are in charge.
DK: Have you been successful at keeping your young people on the land?
OL: We don’t have enough houses now. Everybody’s piling back. No taxes back home on the land. We haven’t got enough room. Half our people live off the nation. They’re all trying to get back on now, because things are collapsing.
DK: You were involved in the Global Forum on Spiritual Parliamentarian Leaders, what sort of the output did that group have?
OL: They came to a final conclusion. It came down to four words: Value change for survival. If you don’t change your values, you are not going to survive. Simple as that, and that’s what came out of that. Values for survival. What values are you going to move to? Come to our values? Long-range. Seven generations. Behave yourself, get into the cycle of nature.
DK: Any thoughts on how to transfer the reverence for life and nature that your people have to other people?
OL: The first thing would be just leave us alone. The only people you can really ask that would probably be the people of Six Nations now. Because everyone else has been taken over. If you asked that question to anyone else it would be, what are your values as a Presbyterian? What are your values as a Catholic? They are the ones that took over, the ones that took the language away, Christianized everyone, took our land besides. You ask how many people have those values? Probably of the Six Nations just the Onondaga, the Oneida, and the Tuscarawas. The Mohawks have an elected system and a Chief system, and the Senecas do as well. The Cayuga’s are wavering now, they want a casino. Just three nations are left in the world. Tuscarawas are mostly Christian, but they adhere to all of our laws. The Chiefs are still there, they are very good fighters too.
DK: Sometimes it seems our tenure here on earth is very much in question, how hopeful are you?
OL: One of things we are instructed as leaders when we first take on this responsibility is not to take away hope from the people. As a leader, do not take away hope from the people. If you’re going to bring hard news, you better bring something else with it. The news that we have today is pretty dire, I was telling you about Banyandieo, when he heard all this and showed him four days and showed him what’s coming. After seeing all that he asked is this going to happen? And they said, yes it will and they said and he said if that’s the case then what’s the use? In 1799. And they said, you tell your people that the generation that allows this to happen is going to suffer beyond all comprehension. You don’t let it be your generation. That’s your instruction to the people. So in other words, it’s going to happen, but it can be held off as long as the people want to work for it. It’s up to the people, it’s in the hands of the people. It is up to us right now. It is this meeting here at Bioneers, this meeting of the good minds, people here are trying. Indians can’t do much, there is just a handful of us. We do have some ideas and we do have some instruction. We still know how to pray, we still know how to keep those ceremonies. We were told as long as we keep the ceremonies and carry them out, we are going to hold on.
What was it that they tried to kill first thing when they got here? They took all of our paraphernalia, put it in a pile, and burned it, because we all had to be Christian. They were not able to do that. We are still here, I am not a Christian. We are holding the line, so every time we have our ceremony, it is on your behalf. People say, we want to come to your ceremony. We tried that one time, and it didn’t work, but don’t worry, what we are doing is on your behalf. The idea is that it gets done. The idea is that those thanksgiving, those ceremonies get finished and that’s what we do. We do it on behalf of the whole earth, we do it on behalf of generations coming.